Today’s teens live their struggles, mood swings and relationship crushes under the glare of their social media connections. Teen popularity contests have extended beyond lunchtime gatherings and now include online ‘likes’, questions and comments. When all of your friends are on Facebook and run ask.fm question sessions, could you miss out on these ways of communicating with your peers? Having no access to social media poses a fate worst that death for most teens – isolation, at a time they are the most desperate to fit in and be accepted.
As a parent, you want to protect your children from the risks of being online. You hear enough stories of online sexual predators, cyber bullying and teen suicides to warrant blocking some websites until your kids are at least 21. Unfortunately, bubble wrap is not a long term solution, for any scary stage of their lives. You need to equip your kids with the skills to become great adults, but that’s a delicate balancing act with their still immature teen brains. So, what’s the answer? Here are some strategies for keeping your teens safe online.
The minimum age for an account on Ask.FM or Facebook is 13, but no proof of age is required. Within minutes of creating a fake email account, your kids can be signed up to social media too. At 13, you’d never let a stranger take photos of them or ask them questions, so enforce this online too. If it’s not appropriate for them in real life, it’s not appropriate online either.
You’d be careful about what movies they watched, so parental control settings are an effective way of blocking some of the stronger objectionable materials online. Start with any settings built-in to their computer, phone or tablet and add third-party software if you think it’s needed. Some parental controls can even block websites etc on a time schedule, so they can get in some online homework time before being distracted by Facebook.
Facebook privacy settings are different for 13-17-year-olds and change to standard adult settings once they turn 18. As confusing as they seem, it’s important to familiarise yourself with the privacy settings in any of your child’s social media accounts, ensuring they are set as tightly as possible. Because it’s not your account, the privacy laws will prevent you from getting Facebook to delete inappropriate photos of your child. On their smartphones, try the AVG PrivacyFix app which will make setting change recommendations in plain English. For younger teens, know their account passwords to reinforce that online access is a privilege, not a right and it’s still your job to know what’s going on in their lives.
My house, my online rules
When they get a social media account, set some house rules. These can include: real life friends & family only as connections online, no posting personal details (including school name, home suburb etc), parents are friend connections too. Set consequences for breaking the rules and spot-check them occasionally. To retain some form of family time and to curb any online obsession, set a curfew for electronic devices prior to bedtime (including the parents’ phones too!) and don’t allow technology to be charged in bedrooms. It’s better for them to have a cheap alarm clock than to find out they were on Facebook at 1am.
Don’t put cyber safety in the too hard basket. There are numerous resources online to help parents and teens with cyber safety and cyber bulling. Do some searching and see what you can find. Check with your local school for any resources they use or any presentations you could attend. As technology evolves, parents need to keep up with the latest trends, research and advice. Share what you’ve learnt with other parents and involve your school if you pick up on concerning chatter within your child’s peer group.
The points above still seem very controlling but with young teenagers they still need a high level of protection. As they get older, they are going to want more freedom and control of their own, so you have to keep the lines of communication open. Talk to your teen about what’s going on it their world. Talk to them about teen suicide headlines. Talk about what they’ve seen and heard online. This will be the hardest thing in this article to achieve, as teenagers are not always known for disclosing every detail of their lives. But it’s also the most important.
Talking gives you the opportunity for ‘how would you handle that’ discussions. It reinforces that you do have their back when they are feeling hurt or upset by something they read or saw online. It helps you sow into their lives positive words that they are good enough, they are valuable, they are unique and that they are unconditionally loved. The sad, common truth in the latest cyber bullying suicides is that the parents had no idea their kids were being subjected to online. Don’t let your parental guard down for the sake of their privacy.
How do you tach your teenage kids about cyber safety?
Sonia Cuff blogs about technology at Off the Cuff.